This is a surprising, historically revealing drama. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, China’s ‘third front’ policy tried to shift industry into the remote countryside and away from cities like Shanghai, which were vulnerable to invasion. Young idealists who went to build the factories – like writer-director Wang’s parents – quickly became disillusioned and longed to return to their native cities but were never allowed to.
Wang’s film is about an engineer, Zemin, who longs to return with his family to distant, prosperous, sophisticated Shanghai. He’s never forgiven his wife for persuading him to move to Guizhou 15 years before. Like his fellow exiles, he looks down on the locals, and even follows his teenage daughter Ginghong to stop her seeing a local boy. He’s opinionated and fixated – nothing must undermine her studies or her prospects when they return to the city.
It’s fascinating to see, even in a remote part of China, conflict between the generations. Youths in the town wear bell-bottom trousers and sunglasses, sport Elvis haircuts and sneak away to illegal dance parties. The discontent is wider, and Zemin and his friends listen to the Voice of America – the only source of news apart from the Communist Party. The theme of intergenerational conflict will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a James Dean film. The portrayal and point of view though, are far subtler; and the context, including the Party’s use of the death penalty as a form of social control, a long way from the complacencies of 1950s America.